Believer or atheist, it doesn’t matter. Ordet will wreck you either way.
At the center of the 1955 film, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and based on a play by Kaj Munk, is the Borgen family: three generations of Danish farmers who live under the same thatched roof. Aging patriarch and widower Morten (Henrik Malberg) credits himself with bringing a renewed religiosity to the surrounding area. This boastful assurance makes the gruff skepticism of his adult son, Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), especially galling. Still, Mikkel’s pregnant wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) ardently believes in God and expresses a patient hope for her husband. They live—along with their children and Mikkel’s younger brother Anders (Cay Kristiansen)—in a state of ardent purpose: working the land, loving each other, living out the very theology they may not all exactly agree on. Before he leaves for the field, Inger holds her husband’s face gently in her hand, allows space for his doubt, and softly tells him that he is a good man and that faith “will come.”
The home also includes Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), Morten’s other son, a former seminarian who suffered a psychological collapse and now wanders around the house in a long coat, speaking only of religious matters. Sometimes he quotes Scripture; at other times he talks as if he is Jesus Christ. Is Johannes mentally ill? (The family treats him as such, largely sequestering him in his room.) Is he a heretic? A prophet? Could it be that he is, indeed, the embodied Christ?
Dreyer allows all of these possibilities to exist at once. Muttering about the house, his monotone drone matched by Dreyer’s slowly panning camera, Johannes resembles an incoherent psychiatric patient. Encountering Johannes for the first time, the local parson (Ove Rud) finds him “absolutely appalling” and seems more than ready to treat him like the subject of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. All the same, when Johannes leaves the house to hurl pronouncements from atop a grassy bluff, he is framed by Dreyer’s camera from below, the heavenly background of floating clouds giving him the visual authority of Elijah or Isaiah. So you have lunatic, heretic, and prophet. When does he resemble Christ? The movie will get to that.
Is Johannes mentally ill? Is he a heretic? A prophet?
First, Dreyer’s film spends significant time critiquing the church, helping us to understand why Mikkel, in his own words, has “not even faith in faith.” The judgmental pastor shows no compassion, while the village tailor refuses to let Anders marry his daughter because of denominational differences. For much of Ordet, faith is some combination of pharisaism, self-delusion, and quackery.
And then Johannes walks into the room again. (Spoilers ahead.) Late in Ordet, the worst tragedy imaginable befalls the farm: Inger and her baby have died in agonizing childbirth. Morten’s prayers during delivery proved useless. At her wake, the pastor—now wearing a particularly frilly collar—offers a homily that’s pure platitude. Mikkel stands over Inger’s open casket and grieves with a burning sorrow. (Christensen is staggering as a widower clinging to bits of emotional wreckage.) When Johannes enters the room and approaches the casket, it seems like salt on the wound, especially when he openly wonders why none of them have asked God to give Inger back to them. Morten accuses him of blasphemy; Mikkel sobs in exasperated anger. But Johannes is serious. Standing at Inger’s feet, he bids her to arise in the name of Jesus Christ. There is an awful second—maybe three or four—and then her fingers stir. Her hands unclasp; her eyes slowly open. Awakening amidst the ruffled satin of the coffin, she revives like the unfurling of a flower.
No one can explain it, and Ordet, to its credit, doesn’t bother. The movie lets us sit in the staggering, mysterious, transcendent wake of a miracle. Perhaps the only viewers who will not be left wobbly by the film are those who fall somewhere between the believers and the deniers—those whose faith is shaky, or whose skepticism tends to wander. In its disarming vision, Ordet makes room for them, existing as both exquisite cinema and an incredible act of grace.